Letter to Sam: Jeremiah’s 70 Years of Servitude

Sam

I wanted to follow up on the letter I sent you the other day about Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of desolation for Judah.  Jeremiah also prophesied 70 years of servitude for Judah.  The technique that you developed for determining the duration of prophetic periods can also be used in analyzing the prophecy of the 70 years of servitude.  Unfortunately, the historical record is not clear enough to determine whether the prophecy was fulfilled as precisely as the prophecy of 70 years of desolation.  I thought that you might be interested since I have not seen this issue addressed in adequate detail.

Problem

In addition to the 70 years of desolation, Jeremiah also appears to prophesy 70 years of servitude to the people of Judah.  The earliest author, of which I am aware, who distinguished between the prophecies of servitude and desolation was Robert Anderson (1841-1918) in The Coming Prince.  The presence of two different 70-year prophecies may explain the diversity of efforts to explain the passages in Jeremiah that mention 70 years. 

Can we identify the prophecy, the start date, and the end date? 

Dominion Given to Nebuchadnezzar 

God gave dominion over to Judah to Nebuchadnezzar, according to Jeremiah.  Moreover, the Lord, through Jeremiah, promised that the people of Judah would be able to stay on the land if they did not rebel.  If they rebelled, the people risked the devastation of the land.  The implication of this passage is that the nation of Judah was in servitude to Babylon.  

(ESV) Jeremiah 27:6 “Now I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. 7 All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes. Then many nations and great kings shall make him their slave. 8 “‘“But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the LORD, until I have consumed it by his hand. 11 But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the LORD.”’” 12 To Zedekiah king of Judah I spoke in like manner: “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. 13 Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the LORD has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon? 17 Do not listen to them; serve the king of Babylon and live. Why should this city become a desolation?”

Start of Servitude of Judah 

The servitude of Judah began with the submission of the Israelites to Babylon, which occurred in the third year of Jehoiakim.  

(ESV) Daniel 1:1 “In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God. And he brought them to the land of Shinar, to the house of his god, and placed the vessels in the treasury of his god.”

Finegan (Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Revised edition, page 254) dated the 3rd year of Jehoiakim to 1 Tishri 606 BC through Elul 605 BC.  

  • 1 Tishri 3156 corresponds to 17 September 606 BC or Julian day 1500340.5.
  • 29 Elul 3156 corresponds to 4 September 605 BC or Julian day 1500693.5.

Jeremiah records the victory of Nebuchadnezzar over Neco as occurring in the fourth year of Jehoiakim.  Daniel, in contrast, recorded the submission of Judah—which appears to have occurred subsequently to the Egyptian defeat—as occurring in the third year.  Finegan (page 254) explained the difference by stating that Jeremiah used Nisan years while Daniel used Tishri years in dates.  (A Nisan year is one in which the first month of the year is Nisan, while a Tishri year is one in which the first month of the year is Tishri.)

(ESV) Jeremiah 46:2 “About Egypt. Concerning the army of Pharaoh Neco, king of Egypt, which was by the river Euphrates at Carchemish and which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon defeated in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah:”

For a date which occurred in the fourth (Nisan year) year—according to Jeremiah—and in the third (Tishri year) year—according to Daniel—then it must have occurred between 1 Nisan and the last day before 1 Tishri.  Why?  The first six months of a Nisan year—the months of Nisan through Tishri—overlap with the last six months of a Tishri year.  Therefore, the first six months of the fourth Nisan year overlap with the last six months of the third Tishri year.  

Therefore, since Nebuchadnezzar defeated Neco in the fourth year of Jehoiakim, according to Nisan years, then it must have occurred between 1 Nisan and the last day of Elul.  

The analysis above showed that the 3rd year of Jehoiakim, according to Tishri years, ran from 1 Tishri 3156, 17 September 606 BC, or 1500340.5 Julian day to 29 Elul 3156, 4 September 605 BC, or Julian day 1500693.5.  The defeat of Neco, therefore, must have occurred between 1 Nisan 3156 (which corresponds to 12 March 605 BC or Julian day 1500517.5) and 29 Elul 3156 (corresponding to 4 September 605 or Julian 1500693.5).  The subjugation of Judah occurred, therefore, in this interval, according to Scripture. 

Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, page 185) reported that, according to Babylonian records, Nabopolassar—the father of Nebuchadnezzar—died on 8 Av 605 BC, which would correspond to 8 Av 3156.  Since Nebuchadnezzar immediately returned to Babylon upon receiving the news, the campaign against Judah must have ended no later than 8 Av 3156.  If correct, then the latest start date for the prophecy would be 8 Av 3156, 15 July 605 BC, or Julian day 1500642.5.  

In summary, we can bound the possible dates for the start of the servitude of Judah as follows:

  • The earliest possible date, according to Scripture, is 1 Nisan 3156, 12 March 605 BC, or Julian 1500517.5.
  • The latest possible date, according to Babylonian records, is 8 Av 3156, 15 July 605 BC, or Julian day 1500642.5.
  • The latest possible date, according to Scripture, is 29 Elul 3156, 4 September 605 BC, or Julian day 1500693.5.

Prophesied End of Servitude of Judah 

Scripture tells us that the Jewish people would be brought back after seventy years, and that Cyrus released the Jews from Babylon in his first year.  Scripture also tells us that:

(ESV) Jeremiah 29:10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”

(ESV) 2 Chronicles 36:22 “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 23 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.’”

Calculation 

The end date of the prophecy would be 25,202 days after the starting date.  (See the analysis of the 70 years of desolation for the method of determining this value.)  

  • The earliest possible end date, therefore, would be Julian day 1500517.5 + 25202 which is Julian day 1525719.5, which corresponds to 12 March 536 BC and 13 Veadar 3225.
  • The latest possible end date, according to Babylonian records, would be Julian day 1500642.5 + 25202 which is Julian day 1525844.5, which corresponds to 15 July 536 BC and 20 Tammuz 3225.
  • The latest possible end date, according to Scripture, would be Julian day 1500693.5 + 25202 which is Julian day 1525895.5, which corresponds to 4 September 536 BC and 12 Elul 3225.

Rise of Cyrus

A dispute exists on the date that Cyrus became king of the Medes and Persians.  Two schools of thought interpret the ancient data quite differently.  The mainstream view follows the Greek historian Herodotus and concludes that Cyrus became king of the Persians, who were subject to the Medes, in 559 BC.  Cyrus subsequently conquered the Medes sometime before his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.  He then ruled Babylon and the Persian empire until his death in about 530 BC.  It is hard to reconcile this interpretation with the events recorded in Daniel that mention Darius the Mede.  

An alternative interpretation of the historical record—which follows the Greek historian Xenophon—has a much different timeline for the rise of Cyrus.  In this interpretation, prior to the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, Cyrus was still a vassal of Cyaxares II, king of the Medes.  Cyaxares II likely was also known as Darius; he is probably the Darius the Mede recorded in Daniel.  Cyrus likely led the joint Persian-Mede forces in the conquest of Babylon.  Cyrus was crowned as king of Babylon after its conquest but remained subordinate to Cyaxares II until the death of Cyaxares II a few years after the fall of Babylon.  Steven Anderson speculated that Cyrus succeeded Cyaxares II in about 537 BC as ruler of the Medes and Persians (Darius the Mede, a Reappraisal, page 125).

We have no firm data when Cyaxares II (Darius the Mede) died, and when Cyrus became king over the combined kingdom of the Medes and Persians.  Without a clear date for the accession of Cyrus, we cannot date the end point of the period of servitude.  However, we can flip the problem around and provide limits on when Cyaxares II (Darius the Mede) died, and Cyrus became king.  Assuming the prophecy was fulfilled to the day and the Babylonian records are correct, then Cyrus became king no more than one year prior to the proposed end dates of the prophecy.  

(ESV) 2 Chronicles 36:22 “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 23 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.’”

The three proposed dates for the end of the prophetic era cover a period of about six months that ends just prior to 1 Tishri 536 BC.  According to Finegan (page 253), Ezra uses Tishri years for the Persian kings.  The first year of the reign of Cyrus would therefore end the day before 1 Tishri 536 BC (which would be 22 September 536 BC or 1 Tishri 3226).  The earliest possible date for the accession of Cyrus would, therefore, be 1 Tishri 3225 (4 September 537 BC or Julian day 1525530.5) and the latest possible date—if the Babylonian records are accurate—would be 15 July 536 BC.  The range from 4 September 537 BC through 15 July 536 BC is consistent with the date of ~537 BC proposed earlier by Anderson for the start of the reign of Cyrus. 

(ESV) Ezra 1:1 “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.” 

Did the prophecy also apply to Babylon?

In reviewing the three references in Jeremiah for a 70-year period, one of the statements explicitly refers to Babylon.  More precisely, in chapter 29, Jeremiah tells the people of Judah that when “seventy years are completed for Babylon,” that God would visit the people of Judah.  Might this passage be a prophecy of the duration of the dominance of Babylon?

(ESV) Jeremiah 29:10 “For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”

The last recorded Assyrian king—Ashur-uballit II—ruled from 611 to 608 BC, according to Finegan (page 252).  Rowton (Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Jeremiah and the Death of Josiah, Vol 10, No 2, April 1951, page 128) argued that the end of the reign of Ashur-uballit II likely occurred in 608 BC.  The remnant of the Assyrian empire, which Ashur-uballit II ruled, had been overrun by the Babylonians, who had replaced the Assyrians as the dominant power in the region.  Babylon’s rise to power can be dated to 608 BC.    

Although Finegan stated that Ashur-uballit II ruled until 608 BC, Finegan also wrote that the Assyrian empire fell in 609 after a battle in Haran between the Babylonians on one side and a joint Assyrian and Egyptian force on the other side (page 252).  Finegan did not reconcile the differences in the two dates.  The paucity of the historical data means that the ending date of the Assyrian empire is uncertain; it may be 609 BC or 608 BC.

According to Finegan (page 266), the city of Babylon fell to the forces of the Medes and Persians on 12 October, 539 BC and Cyrus entered the city on 29 October, 539 BC.  The end of the Babylonian Empire, therefore, occurred in 539 BC.

The period of Babylonian power runs from the defeat of the last Assyrian king in 608 BC to the fall of the city of Babylon in 539 BC—which is a span of 69 years.  As noted in the analysis of the prophecy of the 70 years of desolation, 70 prophetic years equals 69 solar years.  Unfortunately, since we do not have the date of the death of the last Assyrian king, we cannot test the precision to anything less than a year.  To within a precision of one year, however, the prophecy of Jeremiah about Babylon was fulfilled.  

Conclusion

The prophecy of 70 years of servitude for Judah is consistent with the limited available historical data; however, since we do not have a firm date for Cyrus becoming the king of the Medes and Persians, we cannot show that the prophecy was fulfilled to the day.  

If my interpretation of the prophecy is correct, however, we can bound the date when Cyrus became king.  He became king no earlier than 4 September 537 BC and not later than 15 July 536 BC.  As noted earlier, this is consistent with the date of ~537 BC proposed earlier by Anderson for the start of his reign.

Jeremiah appears to also have prophesied how long Babylon would endure as a great power.  His prophecy of 70 prophetic years—which corresponds to 69 solar years—matches the (admittedly sparse) data that we have on the duration of Babylon’s role as the central power of the Middle East from 608 BC to 539 BC.  

These fulfilled prophecies further demonstrate the reliability of the Word of God and His knowledge of the future.  If He knew what would happen to the great powers of the day—at the time of Jeremiah—why should we doubt Him today?  

Comments, suggestions, and critiques are welcomed.  

Matt Payne

Guest Writer & Friend of Sam A. Smith

Mattp001@verizon.net

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